crushed and ground - for so long - under the heel of fate,
This review is from: L'Assommoir (Classics) (Mass Market Paperback)
There are few novels as bleak and unrelenting as this one, at least in my reading experience. Over 500 pages, you witness the aspirations and grotesque decline of a working-class family into alcoholism, promiscuity, and violence. It is so awful, the blows so continual and harsh, that only the most committed of readers will be able to get through it. But for those that do, I believe there are great rewards.
On many levels, this book broke new ground. First, it is a clinical dissection of the progression of alcoholism, based on direct observation by Zola and scientific research, describing not only its symptoms in gory detail, but its impact on a family. Second, it was one of the first attempts to portray the working class realistically, rather than as a sterotype of inferior crudity or romanticised as noble savages. THis spawned an entire genre of socially relevant novels and is a great contribution. Third, it introduced an entirely new vocabulary into French art, that is, the gutter argot that the Academie Francaise condemned as unsuitable. Taken together, these are remarkable acheivements.
While I hesitate to reveal the plot, I assume that most readers will know it in outline. It involves a good person - a hard-working laundress with dreams of running her own shop - who marries a neighbor a few weeks after her lover leaves her with two children in Paris. For many years, things go well: they love eachother, work very hard and save money, and live cleanly. THen, after a terrible accident, the husband begins to drink, which initiates a downward spiral that is so painful to follow: his work suffers, then his marriage, and finally his health. The laundress, who is so sympathetic and full of hopes, is simply crushed under the burden of supporting everyone financially and emotionally. SHe wants to do what is right and fails utterly, helpless to halt the destruction she is witnessing. In addition, her many enemies, such as her spiteful in-laws and neighborhood gossips, add cruel twists to her decline.
The heroine's misery and debasement are monuments to naturalist realism, through which Zola aspired to show things as they really are: there is none of the growth and romantic redemption that one expects in Anglo-saxon novels from the same period of the late 19C. On a broader longitudinal scheme, the novel also shows the backgrounds of two of Zola's most important characters, the half-siblings Nana and Etienne, who are the central characters in two truly great novels that follow (Nana and Germinal). FInally, it adds a crucial dimension to the portrait of 2nd-Empire France, that of the working class.
Recommended as a truly historic novel. However, the reader is warned that there is little pleasure in store.